It is this extraordinary report, by Brian Castner, published today in Motherboard. It is called “One Degree of Separation in the Forever War,” and I promise you will find it worth the time, and later reflection.
I would like everyone thinking about, or voting on, American foreign and military policy also to read and absorb this essay. Readers owe thanks to Brian Castner for writing it. The public owes deep respect to the Hines brothers whom it describes.
In response to this past week’s NFL observances of Veterans Day, including camouflage-themed clothing for coaches and sideline staff, a reader sends a comparative note on how pro sports teams elsewhere recognize this occasion:
You mentioned lapel poppies in the UK the other day. Worth noting that how the UK observes Remembrance Day is very different even at sporting events. Here is some fan-shot video from the proceedings at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in North London this past Saturday:
In addition, every player had a poppy embroidered on their jersey. I find this way of marking the occasion far more meaningful than the overly jingoistic version that seems to predominate on our shores.
Veterans Day respects and gratitude to those who have sacrificed and served.
To spare effort by those getting ready to write in and explain this distinction: I do realize that the connotations of Remembrance Day, in England and elsewhere, are different from those of Veterans Day on the same November 11 date in the United States. Originally all these observances were Armistice Day, recognizing the end of World War I hostilities on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918. As another world war began, the name was generally shifted to Remembrance Day, which in England serves the purpose Memorial Day does in the United States: that of recognizing those who died in the line of duty. (For more on the Civil War origins of American Memorial Day, see Deb Fallows’s item from Mississippi.) In the United States, Veterans Day is for those who have performed military service, living and dead.
Will Bardenwerper, who joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks and served as an infantry officer in Iraq, has a very strong essay in the Washington Post just now on the hollowness of the “Salute to the Heroes!” rituals that have become part of professional sports, especially the NFL. The title gives you the idea: “How patriotic pageantry at sporting events lost its meaning.” Here is a sample:
I should appreciate these moments at professional sporting events. I did once, but not so much anymore. Neither do a surprising number of the men with whom I served…. These moments, after a decade and a half of continuous war, have become rote and perfunctory, unintentionally trivializing what began with the best of intentions.
And, more pointedly, about the scenes that might accompany the heartwarming videos of a service member being reunited with spouse and children:
When I saw this, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like if, instead, the Jumbotron had carried live footage of a military “casualty notification” officer in his dress uniform approaching the door of a comfortable home in middle America, stepping across a carefully manicured lawn, knocking on the door, an American flag blowing lazily in the breeze overhead, and having a mother collapse in tears at the sight of him, before he even has a chance to tell her that her only son had been shot and killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Very much worth reading. Bardenwerper even has a “to do” suggestion at the end of his essay. Conceivably at some point the chickenhawk shamelessness of these spectacles will sink in.
Additionally, from a reader on the East Coast:
Yesterday at noon I posted on Facebook that, as a veteran, I was NOT “honored” when the NFL’s partners sell camo clothing.
I got 25 likes, and I only have 100 – 125 “friends”.
Here’s a strange story out of Annapolis that seems to fit within Fallows’s new thread on Chickenhawk Nation, or the tendency of the American public to express easy gestures of gratitude to the military without at the very least informing themselves about why servicemembers are deployed all over the world, let alone sacrificing anything themselves. (As the son of two retired Army officers, including a Vietnam vet, I’m a bit biased on this.) So here’s the story: Local fans of the Naval Academy’s football team have renewed a seemingly sweet but condescending habit of tossing candy to the brigade of about 4,400 midshipmen that traditionally marches into the stadium at every home game. Things have even gotten ugly:
“[Y]ou get these little cretins who throw [the candy] 150 mph,” then-city police Sgt. Paul Gibbs told The Capital [in October 1998]. Well, the enthusiasts may have returned this season, because complaints resurfaced about the practice — don’t call it a tradition — of throwing Snickers, Starbursts, Tootsie Rolls, even hamburgers at the brigade.
“I saw hamburgers lying in the street,” said Bill O’Leary, who has lived across from the stadium since the 1990s. For years, he has called for an end to the throwing. “They throw plastic water bottles at them, too.”
Beer cans were added to the onslaught during a game against Wake Forest in 2009. Since the late ‘90s, Naval Academy officials have repeatedly urged the public to stop this habit—“It shows a lack of respect for the uniform of our armed services,” according to one statement—but it keeps popping up. Here’s one lame defense from a local fan via Facebook:
“As a kid, I grew up watching the Brigade of Midshipmen marching from the academy to the games at the stadium. My first memories were that we would toss candy to them so they could have some treats during the game. It wasn’t ‘throwing candy at them’ to be disrespectful. Then sometimes they would have candy to thank us and toss it back,”
Short-version background to this post: what I’m calling Chickenhawk Nation is a country whose troops are always at war, but whose people are mainly untouched by war, and that tries to paper over that difference with ritualized “Salute to the Heroes” ceremonies, like today’s throughout the NFL. You can read the long version of the background here, or in other messages on this thread.
Today’s installment: how to think about the popularity of military camo gear among people who have never dreamed of enlisting, and the additional role of flags. First, from a serial entrepreneur who now makes his living as a mariner:
One of the thing I've noticed is that homeless people now festoon their rigs with American flags. This was brought to mind by the fellow who roams our neighborhood in [XXX] with a shopping cart picking up scrap metal, but I've also seen it on shanty boats in the ICW [Intracoastal Waterway] and elsewhere. I'm pretty sure this is a post-9/11 phenomenon, but I think it's lingered because of the thin patriotism that Chickhawkism fosters.
My theory is that by adorning their carts, tents, boats, etc with flags (the guy in our neighborhood has 4 or 5 on his shopping cart) these guys feels they are marginally less likely to get hassled by authorities. As someone who has been a vagrant here and their through my life, I know that being hassled by The Man is an ever-present burden that one is wise to take steps to blunt.
I could easily document this, but can't think of a way or reason to do it that doesn't further trample the dignity of these unfortunate fellow, so I just pass it along as something I've noticed in our current Cult of the Flag/ Chickenhawk times.
Further on the NFL-and-military connection, from a reader in Seattle:
As for our SeaChickenHawks: It’s difficult to reconcile that they’ve taken $453k from the military for such events when you consider this little-known but ugly incident between coach Pete Carroll and Gen. Peter Chiarelli.
The reader goes on to quote from this Deadspin account, unrefuted by Carroll or the Seahawks as far as I can tell, about Carroll trying to convince Chiarelli — who had been inside the Pentagon when the 9/11 airplane hit the building, and whom I first met when he was a young officer at West Point 30 years ago — that the whole attack was a hoax. Sample quotes:
Chiarelli—who grew up in Seattle—is a big Seahawks fan. His post-military work concerns traumatic brain injury research, a cause of some significance to the NFL. And both have plenty of experience leading groups of men on grand American stages.
The sit-down between Chiarelli and Carroll started off normally enough. They talked about the team, and then about head trauma. Chiarelli, who commanded the American forces in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom II, talked about the brain injuries he had seen there. But Chiarelli's mention of Iraq sent Carroll in another direction: He wanted to know if the September 11 attacks had been planned or faked by the United States government.
In particular, Carroll wanted to know whether the attack on the Pentagon had really happened.
You can read more at the Deadspin account. A further fillip on a culture that is symbolically reverent of “the heroes” but in real terms vastly distant from them.
In the context of this past week’s “Paid Patriotism” report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, about the way the Pentagon has been paying pro sports teams for patriotic on-field displays, a reader sends a screenshot from one of today’s games:
Sorry for the interruption, but I had to send this from the game on now. All of the coaches are dressed in camouflage!
Yes it's Veterans Day Wednesday, but during the years when I lived in England, where people really know about the horrors of war, no one would even think of dressing up like that. If you wanted to honor vets you wore a red poppy.
And of course red poppies on the lapel are very widespread Remembrance Day tributes in the U.K., Canada, Australia, etc. It’s worth noting that the camo theme in today’s U.S. football games applies not simply to the caps but even to the Bose headsets, as you see here.
The significant point, I think, is that the American public has seen things like this so often that we barely notice any more. The re-themed Bose headsets are another detail that Ben Fountain might have worked into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, though perhaps he was worried about making the satire a little too broad.
Update Thanks to a reader for pointing out that in a special salute to the troops, the NFL’s online shop is offering a full 15% off list price to veterans and service members.
Pro football looms large in modern America’s consciousness in all ways, but notably so in what we’ve been discussing as ChickenhawkPaid Patriotism. Ben Fountain’s wonderful novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, builds its whole plot around a halftime “Salute to the Heroes!” at a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys game. And NFL teams were prominently featured in the Sen. McCain/Sen. Flake exposé on the Pentagon’s underwriting of pro-veteran and pro-troop displays at sports events.
A reader writes about why he objects in particular to the NFL:
Just wanted to say it has long bothered me that the National Football League foists "tributes to the military" during its games. (Other leagues might bother me just as much, but I pay less attention to them).
I can think of no demographic group in the United States that has a lower rate of service in the US military than the players, owners, and coaches of the National Football League. For members of the NFL, it is virtually always “my career over my country.” I am almost 60 years old, and a lifelong fan of football, but of the thousands of players who have played in the NFL in my lifetime, I can recall only two players—Roger Staubach and Pat Tillman—who have served in the US military. [JF note: I am sure there are more, but like the reader I don’t immediately think of them. I checked the NFL’s site for players/coaches with military connections. The list is here, and it’s mainly “father served in Vietnam,” “brother is in the Reserves” etc.]
Plus, the NFL as an organization does all it can to avoid paying taxes to support those who do serve. And its owners generally have their nose in the trough to gather up as many tax dollars as they can to subsidize their profit-seeking enterprises.
In terms of real military service and support, it would be difficult to find a more concentrated cluster of physical and economic wimpiness than the National Football League.
On the more substantive questions of the real respect and accommodation for troops, veterans, and their families, a reader with a military background writes:
I often find myself dumbfounded at the superficial "support" thrown to veterans and as a veteran, insulted at the jingoism-driven lack of true oversight over military spending. For whatever it is worth, I felt I ought to lend you my humble two cents.
I am veteran of the Canadian Army living in the U.S. I served in Afghanistan prior to settling in Virginia with my U.S. wife. Another aspect of the “chicken-hawk economy” that I think is worth more public scrutiny is how veterans integrate into the workforce.
Many large U.S. firms have veteran hiring targets and specialized veteran recruiters. Businesses typically view "veterans" as a homogeneous group that is stereotyped as "you must be good following orders," or "repetitive tasks don't faze you," and many others. Some are positive, but most I typically find off-putting and indicative of a society that understands little (nor seems to want to understand) of what service entails.
Every veteran is unique. Some 25 year olds negotiated peace settlements between warring tribes. Some 25 year olds fixed armored vehicles. Some 25 year olds ran Pashto-language radio stations. The work performed by former members of the military should be treated equal to work performed by non-former members of the military by potential employers.
I am confident enough in the work done by veterans overseas that it can (or should) easily compete with those with equivalent civilian world experience. I find that US hiring managers seem to want to avoid the details of my service, in favor of a more superficial treatment of me as a "veteran" who can "obey orders." The accomplishments of veterans are not given the opportunity to speak for themselves because of this "chicken-hawk society" in which those not directly engaged with the armed services pay it lip service but do not want to dive into the grittier details.
Post 9/11 veterans engaged in an unprecedented type of conflict. The nature of counterinsurgency in the information age dictated that major decisions, that in prior generations would have been made by Colonels and Generals, were decentralized to some of the lowest levels. A generation of veterans holding some of the strongest leadership credentials of any generation is being undervalued and stereotyped by the society to which it returns. This is wrong from a business perspective, and an unethical way to treat those who served.
A retired Air Force officer, who still does some contracting work with the Pentagon, writes about the news that the Defense Department was underwriting “salute to the heroes!” pageants at pro sports games:
A couple of thoughts:
1. Don’t be so quick to give some recognition to the Washington sports teams for not receiving money from the Pentagon. [JF: I pointed out that the Nationals, Caps, Wizards, and Redskins were not on the pay-for-celebrating-troops list.] I believe that the fawning to veterans at these settings is underwritten by Defense contractors, rather than the Pentagon itself. General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, etc.
I am truly split at what makes me more sick—DoD underwriting it, or the purveyors of weapon system underwriting it, who help to lobby for using their weapons. Particularly sickening for me at Nats games where we often see so many wounded from Walter Reed there.
2. Another item to make you sick: Watching a Marine at formal parade rest while pampered golfers eye up their putts. [See above.]
I am a retired AF officer, and I get the need for recruitment budgets. But for multi-million (billion) dollar for-profit sports enterprises who benefit so greatly from other forms of DoD support (flyovers, security, sports-loving soldiers, etc) to also take money for this stuff ...
We have lost all connection with the military. [The people cooking up these plans] should be pilloried, but the public really won’t care. Hell, leading presidential candidates can insult prisoners-of-war and their numbers go up.
In this new Thread I will revive a string of reader commentary, plus news updates (F-35, A-10, budgets and strategy, veterans’ welfare, future strategy), on the themes I dealt with in my Chickenhawk Nation article early this year. The article’s official title was “The Tragedy of the American Military.” Early this year, before the introduction of our Notes and Threads, I ran more than 20 installments of reader response to it. You can find a compendium of them here, and eventually I’ll try to migrate them to this page as well.
Let’s begin: There is simply no other place to revive this series than with the new report by Arizona’s two U.S. Senators, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, called “Paid Patriotism.” That’s the cover, below. You can read the whole thing in PDF here.
The surprise value of this report, for me, was that neither I, nor Ben Fountain, had been anywhere near cynical enough.
Ben Fountain is the author of the celebrated, widely read, and should-be-read-even-more-widely short novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I discussed in my piece. At face value, Fountain’s book is remarkably cynical. It is about a little group of U.S. troops serving in Iraq, who are brought back to be featured in a “Salute to the Heroes!” at halftime at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving day, and then are shipped right back to the front. All the civilians feel good about their few minutes of congratulating the heroes. Then the civilians get back to real life of making and spending, and they forget about the war, and the troops.
Plenty cynical, right? And I felt cynical for saying that Billy Lynn had captured the spirit of “a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.”
What I hadn’t imagined, and what Fountain would presumably have added to his novel to darken its mood if he didn’t think it would strain credulity, is what Senators McCain and Flake document in this report: that the Pentagon has been underwriting many of these seemingly heartfelt “salutes.” Just for one example, the Atlanta Falcons got as much as $300,000 per year for honoring-the-military services like these for the Georgia Army National Guard:
There is more, about a lot of teams in in all the major sports leagues. I encourage you to read and reflect on it. Local-interest note: D.C.-area sports fans usually don’t have much to celebrate. But for whatever reason, only the D.C. United soccer team, among local franchises, was involved in the celebration-for-pay program. Not the baseball Nationals, hockey Capitals, basketball Wizards, or our NFL team.
In Pentagon terms, we’re not talking about a lot of money — a few million dollars, in an organization that spends more than a billion per day. But that money has disproportionate symbolic sting.
So Ben Fountain had not imagined the full reality, and neither had I. The American public is willing to pause at halftime and think respectfully about the one percent of us involved in carrying out our open-ended wars. As long the Pentagon is footing the bill.
The former president’s 2015 backers, in their own words
Now that Donald Trump’s presidency is over, how do the Americans who supported him at the beginning of his political run feel about his performance in the Oval Office? I put that question to 30 men and women who wrote to me in August 2015 to explain their reasons for backing his insurgent candidacy.
Among the eight who replied, all in the second week of January, after the storming of the Capitol, some persist in supporting Trump; others have turned against him; still others have lost faith in the whole political system. They do not constitute a representative sample of Trump voters. But their views, rendered in their own words, offer more texture than polls that tell us an approval rating.
Donald Trump did not merely lie to exaggerate his accomplishments, or smear his opponents. For Trump and the Republican Party, lies were a loyalty test. To reject Trump’s lies or exaggerations, even if they contradicted prior assertions by the now-ex-president, was to express disloyalty, the only Trump-era sin that was unforgivable by his faithful. This allowed the president to fashion for his supporters alternate realities whose tenets could not be questioned, such as his false allegations of voter fraud.
President Biden is inheriting one of Trump’s pet projects.
The headquarters of the United States Space Command was supposed to be based in Colorado. Since then-President Donald Trump revived the command in 2018, the state had been its temporary home, and last February, when the search for a permanent location was still on, he had teased that the current arrangement could win out. “I will be making a big decision on the future of the Space Force as to where it is going to be located, and I know you want it,” Trump said at a rally in Colorado Springs last February. “You are being very strongly considered for the space command, very strongly.”
The Space Command is not the same thing as the Space Force, which was created in 2019 (and which, by the way, is not the same thing as NASA, either). The Space Force trains service members, some of whom serve under Space Command. But in Trump’s mind, they are wrapped up together, as one of his signature accomplishments. Space is cool and flashy, and who doesn’t love Mars? When Trump mentioned the Space Force at a rally, the crowd erupted in cheers. A new Space Command headquarters would, in theory, help cement part of his legacy—Trump, the president who made space great again.
After growing up in a family that never lied, I spent decades being off-puttingly truthful.
When I was a child, my dad invented a game that I loved. Wherever we went, he’d predict what strangers were about to say or do. We’d walk into a store and he’d point at the salesman and say something like, “Watch this. When I tell him how much I’m willing to spend, he’ll immediately show me something more expensive.” The salesman did exactly as Dad had prophesized. When Dad took me to my first concert, he told me the musician would ask the audience how they were feeling tonight and, when everyone cheered wildly, would respond, “I can’t hear you!” It wasn’t long before the musician spoke those exact words.
It felt like magic, like Dad was telling the future or reading minds, so I asked how he did it. Most people follow a script, he said. I asked him why and I remember him replying, “Because they’re afraid that if they say what they really feel, people won’t like them. And they’d rather be liked than be honest.” I knew then that I wanted to be honest, regardless of the consequences. I stuck to that for the next 25 years. And there were consequences.
Election changes such as ranked-choice voting and nonpartisan primaries are popping up across the country—and are already upending national politics.
Lisa Murkowski did not waste time, and she did not mince words. Just two days after former President Donald Trump provoked an insurrectionist mob to storm the Capitol on January 6, Alaska’s senior senator told her local newspaper: “I want him to resign. I want him out.”
Murkowski was the first GOP senator to demand Trump’s exit after the deadly riot. The speed and bluntness with which she spoke out against the former president surprised her allies, who saw in her words the first reverberations of how Alaska voted in November. Murkowski wasn’t on the 2020 ballot, but in passing a ballot measure to change the way the state elects its leaders, Alaskans effectively gave their long-serving senator a fresh infusion of political freedom: She no longer needs to worry nearly so much about a conservative primary foe defeating her next year. “I think we’ve seen the result of it already,” former Alaska Governor Bill Walker told me.
In the aftermath of the January 6 riot, extremists have become obsessed with the federal agents who might lurk among them.
Updated at 9:15 a.m. E.T. on January 25, 2021
Judging by the actions of those who stormed the Capitol, far-right extremists don’t fear arrest. But they do fear one thing: glowies.
During the Trump administration, many far-right groups’ main concern was figuring out how to recruit more people to the cause. But as federal law-enforcement officials continue to round up people suspected of involvement in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and Joe Biden’s administration promises a crackdown on white-supremacist and anti-government radicals, extremists are on the verge of a crack-up, posting widely and worriedly about spies in their midst—“glowies.” That’s the term far-right groups use to describe people they suspect of being federal law-enforcement agents or informants infiltrating their communication channels, trying to catch them plotting violence, or prodding them into illegal acts.
With vaccination racing the spread of COVID-19 variants, America could be at a tipping point.
In the past week, a new picture has emerged in COVID-19 data: The pandemic seems to be receding from its high-water mark in the United States. The most dependable metric of COVID-19’s spread—the number of people currently in the hospital with the disease—is in its first sustained, week-over-week decline since September, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. Hospitalizations fell in the past week in every state but Vermont.
The number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 is falling too. New cases declined in every region of the country last week. Cases even seem to be ebbing in the coronavirus epicenters of California and Arizona, though the Sun Belt remains a hot spot. In the past two weeks, only two states—New York and Virginia—have set a single-day record for new cases. (In contrast, 13states set a new record three weeks ago.)
The attempted coup reshaped the debate over then-President Donald Trump’s attempts to steal the 2020 presidential election, focusing both opponents and defenders on the insurrection itself and what role he played in inciting it. Now out of office, Trump is facing a second Senate impeachment trial. But as blockbuster reports in three newspapers over the weekend imply, January 6 was not the only or even necessarily the most important example of Trump’s attempts to hang on to power despite losing an election.
And the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases has dropped significantly too.
Today marks two weeks of declining COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S., 14 straight days without a blip upward, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. Case numbers, too, are declining, and today the seven-day case average is down a third since its peak, on January 12.
That day, the count of current hospitalizations was 131,326; it’s now down to 108,957. It’s the first significant decline since September 21, when the climb down from the summer surge stopped just under 29,000. As the country passes the milestone of 25 million cases, it’s a stable indicator pointing in the right direction.
During the winter surge, hospitalization numbers bumped over a number of small, false summits, in which hospitalizations declined for a day or two before continuing their rise. They also rose for a couple of days after coming down from January 6’s absolute peak of 132,474.
Pharmacies have started quietly offering leftover COVID-19 shots to anyone around. You can guess where this goes.
It was anarchy at the deli counter. On Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, a couple dozen masked people had crowded into a corner of a Giant supermarket, where they swiveled their heads warily. As I approached them, a slightly haggard man in an orange down jacket stopped me. “Here for the extra vaccine doses?” asked the man, who was part of the group, not a Giant employee. He handed me a scrap of paper with the number 24 scrawled on it.
For more than a week, lines have quietly been forming at certain D.C. supermarket pharmacies, which have started giving away leftover vaccine doses each day just before closing time, usually to between one and three people. Vaccine lines for eligible recipients have already become a common sight in some places, but these shots are available to anyone—not just the health-care and frontline emergency workers who qualified weeks ago in most states, or even those 65 and older, who became eligible in D.C. on Monday. And the lucky few who get a shot also get scheduled for a second dose. At the Giant in Shaw, the crowd by the deli included people who looked old enough to meet the age cutoff and people who looked young enough to be students—all hoping to strike the vaccine jackpot. The most hard-core among them had been up since 4:30 in the morning.